False honor like false religion is worse than none. They both lead to destruction and are deprecated by all good men. The one is a relic of the barbarous ages--the other is older, having first been imposed on mother Eve amidst the amaranthine bowers of Eden. Inconsistency is an incubus that assumes numerous forms. In some shape it hangs over every nation and most individuals. It is human nature to err--but some errors are so plainly a violation of reason and common sense that it is passing strange sound men do not avoid them. Yet we often see those of high attainments rush into the whirlpool of inconsistency with a blind infatuation that the fine spun rules of the acutest sophistry cannot justify.
One of the fallacious and opprobrious inconsistencies that now disgraces our nation is dueling. Many in this country boast of our intellectual light and mourn over the ignorance of the poor untutored red man. In turn he can point us to a dark spot on our national character that never tarnished the name of a western or eastern Indian. This bohun upas thrives only in communities that claim civilization. In no country has it been tolerated with so much impunity as in our own. By our law it is murder. In no instance has this law been enforced. Widows may mourn, orphans languish, hearts bleed, our statesmen perish and the murderer still run at large and be treated by many with more deference than if his hands were not stained with blood. This foul stigma upon the American name should be washed out speedily and effectually. Let the combined powers of public opinion, legislative, judicial and executive action be brought to bear upon it with the force of a rushing avalanche. Flagrant crimes are suppressed only by strong measures.
Among the victims of this barbarous practice was Button Gwinnett, a man of splendid talents and a patriot of the American Revolution. He was born in England in 1732. His parents were respectable but not wealthy. Being a boy of promise they bestowed on him a good education. At his majority he commenced a successful mercantile career at Bristol in his native country. Surrounded by a large family he resolved on changing his location and came to Charleston S. C. in 1770, where he pursued merchandizing two years. He then sold out his store, purchased a plantation on St. Catharine Island, Georgia, to which he removed and became an enterprising agriculturist. He possessed an active mind and was a close observer of passing events. Having resided in England during the formation of the visionary and impolitic plan of taxing the colonies, he understood well the frame-work of the British cabinet. From the course he promptly pursued it is plain he was a Whig in England. The subject of raising revenue from the colonies of the new world had been fully and ably discussed in Great Britain. Many of her profound statesmen had portrayed, with all the truth of prophecy, the result of the blind unjust course of ministers towards the Americans. The most sagacious English statesman then in Parliament, Lord Chatham, exerted his noblest powers to bring the cabinet to a sense of common justice--the only path of safety. Mingling with intelligent men at Bristol, Mr. Gwinnett had become well informed upon the litigated points in controversy and was well acquainted with the relative feelings and situation of the two countries. When the question of liberty or slavery was placed before the people of his adopted land he declared in favor of freedom. Knowing the superior physical force of Great Britain and the weakness of the colonies, a successful resistance seemed to him problematical. His doubts upon the subject were removed by the enthusiasm of the patriots generally and especially by the lucid demonstrations of Lyman Hall, a bold and fearless advocate of equal rights with whom he became intimate. Convinced of the justice and possible success of the cause he at once became a champion in its favor. He had counted the cost, he had revolved in his mind the dangers that would accumulate around him and truly predicted his property would be destroyed by the devastating enemy--yet he nobly resolved to risk his life, fortune and honor in defense of chartered rights and constitutional franchises.
He enrolled his name among the leaders of the patriotic movements--became a member of several committees and conspicuous at public meetings. In her colonial capacity Georgia was the last to come to the rescue. Some of her noblest sons had become shining lights in the glorious cause. Patriotism was extending--oppression increasing, eyes opening, ears listening, minds working, hearts beating and those who were perching on the pivot of uncertainty were fast losing their balance. At length the cry of blood was heard from Lexington. The work was done. Georgia started from her lethargy like a lion roused from his lair and prepared for the conflict. Like green wood--she was slow to take fire but gave a permanent heat when ignited.
On the 2d of February 1776 Mr. Gwinnett was appointed to the Continental Congress and took his seat on the 20th of May ensuing. Although his constituents were determined to maintain their rights at all hazards most of them looked upon the plan of Independence as a project of visionary fancy--ideal, not to be hoped for or attempted. It gained strength by discussion and emerged from its embryo form. At this juncture a colleague of Mr. Gwinnett, the Rev. Mr. Zubly with a Judas heart, wrote a letter to the royal governor of Georgia, disclosing the contemplated measure, a copy of which was in some way obtained and placed in the hands of Mr. Chase who immediately denounced the traitor on the floor of Congress. The Iscariot at first attempted a denial by challenging the proof but finding that the betrayer had been betrayed he fled precipitately for Georgia in order to place himself under the protection of the governor who had just escaped from the enraged patriots on board a British armed vessel in Savannah harbor and had enough to do to protect himself without rendering aid or comfort to a traitor. He was followed by Mr. Houston one of his colleagues. Swift was the pursuit but swifter the flight. On the wings of guilt he flew too rapidly to be overtaken.
When the proposition came before Congress for a final separation from the mother country Mr. Gwinnett became a warm advocate for the measure. When the trying hour arrived, big with consequences, he gave his approving vote and affixed his name to the important document that stands acknowledged by the civilized world the most lucid exposition of human rights upon the records of history--the Declaration of American Independence. In February 1777 he took a seat in the convention of his own state convened to form a constitution under the new government. He at once took a leading part and submitted the draft of a constitution which was slightly amended and immediately adopted. Shortly after this he was elevated to the Presidency of the Provincial Council, then the first office in the state--rising in a single year from private life to the pinnacle of power in Georgia. At this time an acrimonious jealousy existed between the civil and military authorities. At the head of the latter was Gen. McIntosh against whom Mr. Gwinnett had run the previous year for Brig. General and was unsuccessful. His elevation and influence annoyed the General. The civil power claimed the right to try military officers for offences that Gen. McIntosh contended came only under the jurisdiction of a court martial. Mr. Gwinnett had planned an expedition against East Florida and contemplated having the command. Gen. McIntosh conferred it upon a senior lieutenant-colonel. The expedition was a failure. The General publicly exulted over his hated enemy and gloried in the misfortune. Under the new constitution a governor was to be elected on the first Monday of the ensuing May. Mr. Gwinnett became a candidate. His competitor was a man far inferior to him in point of talents and acquirements but was elected. Gen. McIntosh again publicly exulted in the disappointments that were overwhelming his antagonist. A challenge from Mr. Gwinnett ensued--they met on the blood stained field of false honor--fought at four paces--both were wounded, Mr. Gwinnett mortally and died on the 27th of May 1777, the very time he should have been in Congress. Comment is needless--reflection is necessary.
Aside from this rash error the escutcheon of Mr. Gwinnett was without a blot. He was a splendid figure, commanding in appearance, six feet in height, open countenance, graceful in his manners and possessed of fine feeling. He was a kind husband, an affectionate father, a good citizen and an honest man.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.